Flathead Cherry Growers Optimistic as Harvest Gets Underway

While early summer heat waves devastated cherry crops across the Northwest U.S., Flathead Valley crops benefit from unique growing conditions and timelines

By Micah Drew
Cherry harvest at Bigfork Orchards. Beacon file photo

When heat waves rolled through the Pacific Northwest in late June, top agricultural areas such as the Yakima Valley struggled to find ways to harvest their cherry crop before the fruit went bad.

“The usual rule is to stop picking cherries when it hits 80 degrees,” said Bruce Johnson, a board member with the Flathead Cherry Cooperative. “Above that, fruit starts to get a little softer and you can damage the fruit easier by picking it.”

Johnson kept a close eye on the cherry orchards in Washington to see how they were handing the abnormally warm temperatures. Days of triple-digit temperatures — Yakima hit 111 degrees on June 29 — left trees with dehydrated fruit and pickers unable to work when the sun was up.

“There were some days they couldn’t pick to begin with and some days they started at 2 a.m. — they were trying to adapt,” Johnson said. “We’re not in that situation.”

Marilyn Bowman, owner of Bowman Orchards outside of Bigfork, also has growing operations scattered across Washington and saw some of her yield disintegrate with the weather.

“Between there being some frost damage earlier and then the heat later on, it’s been a rough year there,” Bowman said. “You never have a normal year with an orchard. There’s always a little hiccup.”

While the Northwest Cherry Growers Association estimates that at least 20% of the crop was ruined, orchard owners in the Flathead Valley aren’t worried about the local fruit.

For one, Montana’s cherry harvest is later than other parts of the Northwest U.S., usually starting the last week of July and peaking the first weeks of August. When the late June warm spell hit the Flathead for a few days, the crop wasn’t at a stage where the fruit was at risk of dehydrating. In addition, the local microclimate affected by Flathead Lake allows temperatures to recover overnight.

Picking is now getting underway at local orchards.

“We’re saying everything is good and our fingers are crossed, but you never really know until you start to pick and see if they’re sizing up OK,” Johnson said. “We’ve just seen some strange things this year.”

Johnson grows several varieties of cherries at his Buena Vista orchard, each with a slightly different timeline for harvest. This year he says the Skeena variety, normally one of the last to be picked, has ripened before the Lapins, the valley’s most popular variety and one of the earliest to come off the tree.

In addition to temperatures in the valley returning to average for this time of year, Johnson says the smoke has been beneficial to the orchards by providing a little shade for the fruit — essentially a layer of sunscreen — preventing the cherries from getting sunburned while ripening.

And while many industries have struggled to find seasonal workers this summer, Johnson said the picking crews haven’t been hard to bring to the orchards, as the usual pipeline of workers from the Central Washington orchards is still intact.

“Most of us are glad that it’s not the COVID year we had last year,” Johnson said, noting that it was more of a struggle to find pickers last year. “We’re not in that situation now.”

The Flathead Cherry Cooperative has around 70 member orchards scattered among the hills surrounding Flathead Lake. In a typical year, the cooperative produces two million pounds of cherries.

Johnson says that while this year started off looking a little better than average, as the harvest commences it looks like the crop might be a tad light.

“The bees really did their thing and there was a heavy fruit set early on,” he said. “But some of the fruit isn’t sizing up all the way, which might be our heat effect showing.”

Every last cherry that is picked, however, is sure to be of the high quality that local pitters and spitters are used to.

“We’re picking now and they look good,” Bowman said. “They’re juicy and sweet. What else do you want?”

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